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John Banville adopts pen name, famous protagonist to reboot Chandler’s iconic crime series

March 21, 2014 at 6:48 PM EDT
Irish writer John Banville slips into Raymond Chandler’s voice for a new crime novel starring one of the great characters in American fiction: private detective Philip Marlowe. 1950’s Los Angeles, the femme fatale, Hollywood stars: Chandler’s noir ingredients are back in full swing in “The Black-Eyed Blonde.” Banville talks to Jeffrey Brown about his novel and using the pseudonym Benjamin Black.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a celebrated Irish author picks up the mantle of an American master of crime fiction.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s been more than 50 years since the death of Raymond Chandler, but his trademark noir ingredients are suddenly back in full, 1950s Los Angeles, the femme fatale, the Hollywood stars, underworld, dead bodies, and of course private eye Philip Marlowe, one of the great characters in American fiction.

All of this found in the new crime novel “The Black-Eyed Blonde.” Its author is Benjamin Black, the pseudonym used by acclaimed Irish writer John Banville, who joins us now.

And welcome to you.

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK, Author, “The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel”: Hi. Glad to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is interesting and even a bit confusing. We have John Banville doing Benjamin Black doing Raymond Chandler.

So, who is sitting here with me?

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: Well, it’s Banville, of course. I mean, there’s just me.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: And I invent these other voices.

But none of us is a singular being. We all invent versions of ourselves…

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: … in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of what you do anyway as a writer?

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: Yes, of course, of course.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. What attracted you to taking on a Philip Marlowe voice?

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: Well, I have been reading Chandler since I was in my early teens, a wonderful writer I admired. He invented a new kind of fiction, not just a new kind of crime fiction, but a new kind of fiction.

He brought the crime novel up to the level of literature and above, also wonderfully entertaining, wonderfully accommodating. He never despised his audience, the way that so many of the great writers do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Despise their audience?

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: The modernists, they were always going on about how they couldn’t be read by mere mortals.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, I see.

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: I have always hated that.

People can read — people who are — as Chandler said himself, you know, that what he wanted to do was write the kind of fiction that would be very, very good and could be read by the semi-literate and they would get it. So he didn’t write down. He wrote his audience up.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you do it without overdoing it, how to channel his style, without making us feel that that’s, you know, all we’re reading is this sort of pastiche of…

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: Well, when I started out to do the book, I thought that I was going to update Marlowe, make him more contemporary, give him a harder edge.

And then when I read — went back and reread the books, I thought, why should I interfere with this? This is wonderful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: This is a marvelous formula and Marlowe is a marvelous, marvelous character.

He’s slightly old-fashioned, but there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s in a way a sort of constructed romantic, as I am myself, as I suspect everybody is, although, nowadays, we have to pretend otherwise, so a marvelous character.

And I just sort of slipped into the Raymond Chandler voice. It was easier than I thought it would be.

JEFFREY BROWN: To capture the specific sense of place, the very specific Los Angeles. He helped define that Los Angeles for many of us. Right?

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: He did.

He invented Los Angeles. When Vladimir Nabokov moved from Europe to America, he said, I spent the first half of my career inventing Europe. Now I’m going to have to invent another continent. And that’s what writers do. We invent places.

Chandler’s and Marlowe’s Los Angeles is an invented place, a wonderfully convincing place, but it is invented.

JEFFREY BROWN: So some part of this is John Banville reinventing…

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: It has to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: … Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles?

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: Yes, it has to be.

My Los Angeles is a Los Angeles from the inside of my head. And my Marlowe is slightly different to Chandler’s, in that he’s — Chandler always felt that he had to make Marlowe slightly brutal. He had to remind himself every now and then he was writing crime fiction.

I didn’t have to do that. I see Marlowe as essentially a melancholy creature. The essential quality of Marlowe is his loneliness. He has no family. He has no friends. He lives in a rented house. He has no possessions. Everyone he falls in love with betrays him. So he is lonely.

But he is brave in his loneliness. And I admire that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You use the pseudonym Benjamin Black for your crime fiction.

And I have read where you have said that it is easier being or writing as Benjamin Black than as John Banville. Is it the style of writing that’s easier or is it just taking on another persona? What is it?

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: I hope I have never said it’s easier, but real crime writers get very, very cross when I say that.

It’s a different way of writing. I write more quickly as Benjamin Black. I write spontaneously. I say to myself, don’t pause over a sentence. Don’t try to get everything right. Just be spontaneous. Just keep — keep going.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s different than your other writing?

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: Oh, yes.

The image I use, Benjamin Black is a tightrope walker, you know? He’s walking. He said, don’t look back, don’t look down, don’t pause. Just keep going to the end.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: Banville is a mole digging away blindly in the dark, not knowing where he’s going, hoping, hoping that he will come out into the daylight at some point. And, usually, he does.

Two entirely different ways of working, but Black is not easier than Banville. It’s just a different way of doing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Well, John Banville, Benjamin Black, the new book is “The Black-Eyed Blonde.”

Thank you very much.

JOHN BANVILLE/BENJAMIN BLACK: Thank you.